We’ve all heard about the Hero’s Journey, thanks to Joseph Campbell and Chris Vogler. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you’ve seen a good example of the Hero’s Journey dramatized—a young man who has greatness within gets a call to go on an adventure. After first “refusing the call” he may meet up with a wise old mentor, join a motley team of allies, go on a series of adventures before returning with a fabulous treasure.
But what about the protagonist in a comedy? That character also goes on a journey, what we call The Comic Hero’s Journey. That journey usually has 7 stages. They are:
1. The Normal World
5. New Directions
6. Disconnections, and finally,
7. Race to the Finish
Let’s start with the Normal World.
In the beginning of the Hero’s Journey, our hero is exceptional. He (or she) has hidden greatness within, but at the start, our heroes are unaware of their undiscovered virtues. In the Comic Hero’s Journey, your protagonist, the comic hero, does not have greatness within him. The protagonist is usually a dweeb or a jerk, or some other kind of a misbegotten misanthrope. In Big he’s bullied and not big enough to go on a ride with the girl of his dreams. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is an egotistical a-hole. In the Normal World, the comic hero’s initial state is defective in some vital way; there’s a hole inside them; their way of being in the world is deeply, deeply flawed.
At the start of the Normal World, the comic hero’s life does not work, only the don’t know it! To them, it’s the normal state of affairs and they’ve accepted it, trying to make the best of what we in the audience can see is a flawed, screwed- up world. In this world, our heroes have initial goals which are short-sighted. (These initial goals will eventually be replaced by discovered goals as the characters transform during the course of the narrative.)
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is a news weatherman for a television station. And in the beginning, we in the audience can see that he’s sort of a cynical, stunted soul, and that his way of being in the world might not be working for him at all, whereas he thinks that all he really needs is to get a bigger contract at a bigger station. In This Is The End, our heroes Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel are going through a moderate bit of show business success. Seth thinks that he’s living he good life as long as he can party hearty and do more drugs and hang out with James Franco. Jay, on the other hand, is very anti-Los Angeles, and looks down on the aimless hedonism and career striving of his moe successful friend. But what Jay’s not aware of is that he still wants the same show business success that his peers are attaining. On the one hand, doesn’t want to be like Seth and James Franco, but on the other hand, he’s really a bit jealous of them. Even though Jay carries more of the voice of reason in the relationship, he’s still not in a good place—his way of being in the world isn’t working for him.
In 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell, his goal is simply to wake up, go to work, come back alone, make an omelet alone, play on his video games. To him, that’s the length and breadth of his world. And that’s what he’s comfortable with, and that’s how he’s going to stay. In Tropic Thunder Robert Downey Jr and Ben Stiller, they just want to make this terrible Vietnam-era movie. Initial goals are short-sighted and don’t address inner needs.
In the Normal World, there are flawed or absent relationships.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is kind of a misanthrope, and all his relationships are superficial. Steve Carell in 40-Year-Old Virgin has no real relationships except for the African-American couple who he shares viewing Survivor with. He doesn’t have any close friends, certainly no female relationships.
In This Is The End, we can see that the relationship between Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel is deeply flawed. They’re not aware of it because both Jay has kept secret that he’s come to Los Angeles and purposely not gotten in touch with Seth Rogen because he just thinks that Seth Rogen is a sell-out. And Jay’s not really doing anything to repair these relationships.
The Normal World can last anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes, setting up your protagonist’s before the WTF, the big event, the catalyst that’s going to send everything spinning out of orbit. During this time, you want to plant many, if not all, the seeds of conflict and resolution that are going to be developed in the narrative and come into play in Acts 2 and 3. It’s a truisms of screenplay writing that if you have Act 3 problems, they’re Act 1 problems. If you’re stuck in the Acts 2 or 3, it’s because you haven’t properly prepared for things in act one.
One of the seeds you’ll plant in Act 1 is what we call Mask to Mensch. Your protagonist starts off wearing a mask, a façade that hides, from himself as well as us, the good man or woman he will eventually become—a mensch.*1 Your characters are pretending, most successfully to themselves, unaware of the possibility that there’s a better person inside. During the course of the narrative, the mask is dropped and the good person, the mensch, emerges. But in the Normal World, while we mostly see the false front, we need to see a glimpse, no matter how fleetingly, of the person they might become.
In the Normal World, your theme is implied or hinted at. What the movie is going to eventually be about needs to be alluded to without being hit on the head. For instance, in Groundhog Day as they’re driving up to Punxatawney, Chris Elliott turns to Bill Murray and says, “What do you have against the groundhog? I covered the swallows going back to Capistrano four years in a row.” And Bill Murray says, very offhandedly, “Somebody’s going to see me interviewing a 1 (This concept is similar to what Michael Hauge talks about in his DVD The Hero’s Two Journeys, in which he talks about identity and essence. But here it’s in Yiddish, so it’s entirely different.) groundhog and think I don’t have a future.” Which is in fact what’s going to happen.
The theme is foreshadowed in the Normal World, and the more opportunities you can have characters and dialogue allude to the theme, without putting your thumb too heavily on the scales, the better. In Purple Rose of Cairo. The character, the husband, Danny Aiello, repeats throughout the movie, “Life is not like the movies!” “Life is not like the movies!” That foreshadows ironically what is about to happen as the fictional character Jeff Daniels is playing is going to emerge from the screen and fall in love with Mia Farrow.
Now you could write a draft and not know what your theme is. You could write three drafts and not really know what your theme is. But at some point, no matter how silly or light your comedy is, it’s got to be about something. What are you talking about, the meaning of the movie, what it should mean to us. At some point, either in your first draft or in your tenth draft, once you figure out what your theme is, you want to go back to the beginning of the movie and thread that through. Very lightly. Your premise, your high concept, may be the big selling point of the movie, the engine that sets everything in motion and keeps it going, but the theme is the rudder. The theme guides you in your choices.
In the movie Big, for instance, the theme is, “What’s the nature of childhood? What’s the nexus between being a child and being an adult? So in the theme, when the Tom Hanks character has to get a job. He could have gotten a job in a bank; he could have gotten a job in a gas station; but thematically, it makes more sense to have him hook up with the head of a toy company in FAO Schwarz because thematically that’s what they’re talking about.